Among the 7,000 new titles featured in Israel's annual book festival last week was the fourth, final, and—sadly—posthumous volume of studies by Israel Ta-Shma (1936–2004), one of the great rabbinic scholars of modern times.
The vast corpus of rabbinic texts written in the many centuries after the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud (circa 500 C.E.) presents formidable challenges to modern scholarship. The skills required to read and master these materials take years to develop. In a half-dozen volumes and some 160 monographs, Ta-Shma fused a thorough rabbinic education acquired in Orthodox yeshivot with the academic methods of philology and the perspectives of history. A long-time professor at the Hebrew University, he also spent years as director of the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts of the National Library. His deep knowledge of the buried treasures of Hebrew manuscripts was crucial to his efforts to recover significant works, otherwise lost to posterity, on the intellectual origins of medieval Jewry.
In so doing, he cast a brilliant light on some of the least accessible and most significant chapters in Jewish history. Perhaps his most arresting conclusion was that much of the early religious life of the Jews of Italy, France, and Germany developed independently of the Babylonian Talmud and its accumulating layers of commentary. In his reading, the great 11th- and 12th-century works of talmudic interpretation by Rashi and the Tosafists ("Supplementers") emerge as revolutionary in their times, creating wholly new bodies of commentary on ancient texts without reference to existing interpretive traditions. Another revolutionary trait of medieval Ashkenazi Jews was their veneration of minhag, custom, as an independent source of law, something that later generations of jurists were hard-pressed to understand.
Given the utter centrality of the Babylonian Talmud to other Jewish communities from late antiquity onward (and to Ashkenazi Jewry from the 13th century to the present day), this was a stunning discovery. Indeed, Ta-Shma saw an altogether profound difference between, on the one hand, the Babylonian-Sephardi legal tradition, rooted in the Talmud and the rulings of the geonim and striving for centralized and uniform study and practice, and, on the other hand, the Palestinian-Ashkenazi tradition, which allowed for greater legal and intellectual diversity. Placing that difference alongside the philosophical and cultural openness of the former and the relatively insular tendencies of the latter, we may discern at this early moment of pre-modern Judaism a much more complex interplay between the opposing forces of revolution and conservatism, freedom and constraint, than the one visible in modern polemics between Orthodoxy and its opponents.
Significant as all this is, it accounts only partially for the interest and vitality of Ta-Shma's work. The rest is to be found in the sheer richness, exuberance, and love of texts coursing through his many pages of biography, bibliographic studies, historical essays, and legal explorations. In the Talmud, the formula "ta-shma," come and learn, is invoked by the rabbis when summoning an earlier source to prove a point, answer a question, or ask a new one. Ta-Shma's father adopted it as the family's Hebraicized surname, and a prophetic choice it was.
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